Blues singer-guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram performs live from 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville, TN, on September 20, 2020.
After ripping off 10 minutes of melodic, Prince-like guitar solos on a custom-made electric guitar, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram does something perhaps unprecedented in the entire history of the blues: He apologizes for the length of the song. “I know that was kind of long,” says the smiling 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Clarksdale, Miss., after a cover of “Empty Promises,” by the late Milwaukee blues guitarist Michael Burks. “That was kind of a spiritual moment. So excuse us for that.”
No apology necessary. Ingram, a cousin of the late country star Charley Pride, and a musician who first picked up the blues from his father’s Muddy Waters documentary, is the latest in the genre’s long line of prodigy soloists. Compared to his forebears, he is more relaxed than Stevie Ray Vaughan, more of a bombastic rock player than either Robert Cray or Gary Clark Jr. and calmer and more patient than Jonny Lang. If anything, his reference point is Buddy Guy, the Chicago electric-blues hero who plays on Ingram’s 2019 album “Kingfish” and invited him to open his shows. They share a style of repeating licks and runs to dramatic effect, then exploding into improvisation.
Playing together in September 2020 for the first time since the pandemic shut down concerts, for a livestream at Nashville’s mostly empty 3rd and Lindsley nightclub, Ingram and his three bandmates look thrilled to be back on stage. On a stretched-out “Love Ain’t My Favorite Word,” Ingram bends and holds notes until they go silent for several dramatic seconds, then plucks the strings with his teeth, then ends with a jumble of solos touching on heavy metal and Hendrix. Yet he’s happy to share the spotlight with keyboardist Eric Roberts, who delivers multiple solos and supplies “elevator music” whenever Ingram changes guitars or tunes up.
He pushes aside the clutter to find room for his prolific melodies.
One of Ingram’s favorite moves is to bring down the band so it’s barely audible, then spew out slow, soft solos, sometimes in familiar blues styles and sometimes through spontaneous melodies. Each time, he ends by abruptly cranking up the volume, and energy, an old trick that carries from blues to rock ‘n’ roll, from Muddy Waters to The Who and Nirvana. The approach gives album tracks like “Fresh Out,” “It Ain’t Right” and “That’s Fine by Me” a roller-coaster dynamic that provides Ingram plenty of options on where to go next, from bombast to subtlety. Ingram doesn’t lay on a groove, like Cray or Clark, and he doesn’t perform with an SRV-like manic energy. He pushes aside the clutter to find room for his prolific melodies.
In this 95-minute set, he makes unexpected creative turns, inviting Nashville songwriters Ashley Ray and Sean McConnell for a soft folk-blues they co-wrote: “Rock & Roll,” about a mother who “made a deal with the angels and then never let go/So I could sell my soul to rock ‘n’ roll.” “Listen” radiates sunny, organic country rock. “Believe These Blues” channels a smooth-jazz, electric-piano groove. Big, blues-rock power chords anchor the set, from “Before I’m Old” (which references Clarksdale’s most famous resident, doomed blues hero Robert Johnson) to “Outside of This Town” (on which “Kingfish” busts into a solo in the opening seconds).
The previous night, Ingram reports from the stage, his quartet had rehearsed for the first time in months, and he feared they might sound like “boo boo.” But, he adds with a smile: “It was like, man, we never left.”
Steve Knopper is a Billboard editor at large, former Rolling Stone editor, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” and “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” and a contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. He lives in Denver, Colorado.